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As production began on his latest evocative adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk, director Barry Jenkins must have felt he was dealing with the exact opposite kind of problem than he faced while making the Oscar winning Moonlight. Before that bombshell Best Picture victory, Jenkins had about as much name recognition as the key grip on your average mid-budget feature but with that win came with it the heavy burden of expectation. Moonlight had a short, not-always easy shoot, was made with the relatively paltry $1.5 million and was the first film with either an all-black cast or an LGBTQ oriented story to achieve the top honour at the Academy Awards. It was a game-changer.
Now it’s two years later. Much of the fervour around that infamous, misplaced envelope has died down and the likes of Green Book — the sort of bait that we hoped to see the back of post-Moonlight — are serious contenders at this year’s awards. In the past there have been directors whose unsuccessful follow-ups after best picture wins leave them on the wayside for the remainder of the careers — Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate anyone? — so Jenkins’ display here does matter. Thankfully, there’s no doubt that Beale Street is proof the man’s talent will endure for some time to come. While it’s doesn’t quite reach the picturesque, painterly highs of Moonlight, this is still an ornately impressionistic and fist-raising refute of systemic injustice.
Perhaps the bravest decision Jenkins made is in the choice of author he adapted. James Baldwin was arguably the most critically lauded African-American novelist of his era so no one could argue that anyone is playing it safe here. On the other hand, the choice makes sense. Both are artists whose works focus on the marginalised and on discrimination that intersects race, sexuality and class. Both also tend to have a deep reverence for their underprivileged subjects. In Beale Street, Jenkins once again shoots faces like Michael Bay shoots explosions and women’s skirts. His protagonists standing squarely in the centre of the frame with the camera’s fixed gaze one of pure, undulated affection. Time stands still in these moments in order to manufacture a brief, happy-ever-after we must know will not come to pass.
Through non-liner fashion, we follow young, black couple Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) and her boyfriend Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) in early 1970s New York. Tish’s life is thrown into disarray when she discovers she’s pregnant with Fonny’s child not long after he’s charged with rape via a dubious witness statement from the victim. The reality is Fonny’s only crime was contriving a grudge with a sneering, intolerant white cop who took issue with an African-American’s reasonable insubordination. With a disjointed narrative, we are given a fragmented depiction of the reality of race in America, as if the destructive nature of bigotry leaves only scattered remnants of the lives it impacts.
But Beale Street is not a cold film. Rather it quite often oozes warmth in every frame. Its small moments can pack a greater punch than Mike Tyson in the first round. Consider the reveal of the pregnancy to Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King). Tish sits in the kitchen, skittish as a mouse as she reverts to her infant self when locking eyes with her maternal parent. The camera cuts before a word is said, because we don’t need a word to be said. All of their shared history and the entirety of their relationship is contained within in that cut. The seismic support Tish receives from her sweet natured father (Colman Domingo) and her wise-cracking sister (Teyonah Parris) also soothes the soul like a hot chocolate on a winter’s night.
Both Stephan James and a shy Kiki Layne are solid as our co-leads, but it’s King that shines brightest here. Even with a limited screen time, she ploughs through her few appearances like a force of nature. It’s no surprise that she’s currently the scorching-hot favourite for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. A late scene finds her flying to Puerto Rico where she is made to act out something close to every parent’s worst nightmare. As King’s knees buckle and we see the ten-tonne weight of a mother’s failure topple her over in real time. The anguish of coming up short for a child in need will probably not be better represented all year.
The decade in which this is set in not insignificant. That Tish and Fonny’s devotion to each other isn’t allowed to blossom is an indictment of the failure of post-civil rights movement US. Racial profiling, redlining and structural inequality continue to act as barriers to the couple’s survival. Their rebellion takes the form of their defiant love for one another. One atmospheric sex scene, scored by only the light pitter-patter of rainfall hitting the roof and windows, has enough intimacy to power Nora Ephron’s entire filmography.
Jenkins’ work with past collaborators once again pays dividends. Cinematographer James Laxton and his director give us sumptuous snapshots of New York life. Their camera doesn’t just move, it swoons with purpose. There’s the glorious opening glide in the park where we pinpoint our two leads in their audience introduction and the 360-degree motion around one of Fonny’s art pieces as it becomes enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. The most staggering effort is probably the tracking of a new-born out of bathwater and into the arms of her very appreciative mother.
If there is a single, standout player here, it might just be composer Nicholas Britell. The deftly jazz-infused and poignant score for Beale Street is its pulse. His work on Moonlight was gorgeous, this is even better. Britell’s music manages to capture both the bohemian jive of its influences as well as the sweeping sense of romantic abandon required. Whatever about the film, it’s hard to imagine anybody forgetting this soundtrack any time soon.
There are forgivable creaks here and there. There is some succumbing to the classic problem faced by adaptations. Tish’s intermittently grating narration is probably a tad more ubiquitous than it’s needs to be. The minor support are a mixed bag too. Diego Luna is a distraction as a kindly waiter and Dave Franco is just far too much Dave Franco in a stilted scene where he plays an impossibly humble landlord. Conversely, Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry has just one impactful monologue about imprisonment but it’s a more succinct representation of the dehumanising effects of incarceration than any four-hour doc on the subject.
As gripes go however, these are slight. Beale Street is Jenkins showing off. It’s the perfect distillation of his successful marriage between far-eastern, art-cinema flourishes and Hollywood sentiment. As a lavish attack on societal villainy that wrenches the heart, it’s both depressingly contemporary and reveals an uncomfortable fact about us today given its lack of a best picture nomination. The worst thing you can say about If Beale Street Could Talk is that it’s no Moonlight and the best thing you could say about it is that doesn’t matter. Stunning.